John Brisben Walker

Charleston Gazette
July 8, 1931

John Brisben Walker, 84, West Side Founder, Dies

Former Charlestonian Passes Away in Brooklyn After Colorful Career as Soldier, Manufacturer, Financier, Journalist

NEW YORK, July 7 - John Brisben Walker, 84, whose avid life led him over many trails, including soldiering in China, manufacturing in West Virginia and pioneering in the new west, died today at his Brooklyn home.

Walker was born in the Monongahela river valley in Pennsylvania. Educated at Georg[e]town college, Washington and West Point, he went to the Orient and for two years served in the Chinese army. In 1870 he again set foot upon American soil. He went in the iron manufacturing business in the Kanawha valley, West Virginia. Three years later, when he thought he had won a fortune of $500,000, the great panic left him penniless.

Walker then turned to journalism. His first efforts were for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, a series of articles on business topics. He later was managing editor of the Pittsburgh Telegraph and held the editorship of the Washington Daily Chronicle.

Farming Successful

He introduced alfalfa on a 1,600 acre farm near Denver as his initial venture in farming. For tracts in the Platte river valley, which he devised a mean of reclaiming, railroads paid him a reputed profit of $900,000 on a $100,000 investment.

He paid $360,000 for Cosmopolitan Magazine, then in need of new blood, and quickly jumped its circulation from 16, 000 to 151,000. He later sold it to William Randolph Hearst.

He was the first president of the Automobile Manufacturers' association.

During the World war, as chairman of the national convention of friends of peace and justice at Chicago, he headed an organization of German-American societies. In 1915, speaking in Cooper Union, New York, he accused President Woodrow Wilson of being insincere and unneutral.

Walker's third wife, Mrs. Iris Calderhead Walker, and nine children survive.

John Brisben Walker lived in Charleston more than half a century ago, having come here from China about 1870 and engaged in industrial enterprises for several years. He was the original real estate promoter of Charleston's West Side, where he lost a fortune, partly because the local citizens looked with amusement on what were considered rash dreams. The last of his property was swept away in the panic of 1873.

He bought 2,000 acres of land, which included nearly all the territory west of Elk river that is now part of Charleston. He laid out and named many of the West Side streets, including Columbia boulevard, Pennsylvania avenue, Ohio avenue, Maryland avenue, Delaware avenue, Charleston street, Fayette street, and Monongalia street.

It was Walker who caused to be printed a pamphlet entitled "the Capitol of West Virginia and the Great Kanawha Valley: Advantages, Resources, Prospect." The booklet was written by General Strother and printed in the office of the Charleston Journal in 1872. One copy is in the state department of archives and history.

He built a large mill for woodworking and engaged in other manufacturing enterprises.

Nominated for Congress

In 1872 he received the unanimous nomination of the republican party for congress from the third district of West Virginia, but was defeated. The third district included Kanawha, Roane, Jackson, Nicholas, Braxton, Clay, Greenbrier and all counties in the southern part of the state.

When he became impoverished, it was with money borrowed from the late S. Spencer Moore, sr., that he was enabled to leave Charleston.

Murat Halstead then offered him a position to write up the mineral and manufacturing industries of the state, which he accepted and prepared an interesting series of articles for the Cincinnati Commercial. Soon afterwards he became managing editor of the Washington Daily Chronicle, which at that time was the leading daily newspaper at the national capital.

In 1870 Walker married Emily, daughter of General David Hunter Strother, a native of Martinsburg, who had won distinction as a literary man under the pen-name of "Porte Crayon."

Walker's old home, which he built while attempting to promote West Side extension still stands near the corner of Virginia street and Ohio avenue. It is occupied by Miss Mary Steel, a daughter of a pioneer of the Kanawha valley. The house has been re-modeled slightly since it was occupied by Walker.

Among Walker's more recent proposals was a scheme to convert the elevated railroads of New York into elevated roads for buses, a plan which attracted the attention of many engineers and traffic experts.

In a letter to Mrs. Mary Carr Caperton of Charleston last fall, Walker said he had a scheme in which mud roads could be converted in hard roads "at a price so low as to be within the reach of every community." He did not explain the plan, however, in his letter.

Business and Industry

West Virginia Archives and History